DEAR ABBY: I am writing this in hope that other women won't have to experience the years of pain that I did.
As a teen-ager, I began to experience disabling pain when I had my period. It got worse in my 20s. Although I didn't realize it then, I was suffering from endometriosis, and eventually the pain affected my life on a daily basis.
I lost a lot to this disease. I was in graduate school, but couldn't keep up because the pain caused me to miss class, and in the end, I had to drop out. I was fired from a job for taking too many sick days. I lost the love of my life because he couldn't handle my constant pain and the resulting depression, nor the effect on our sex life. For years I couldn't even plan social events, because I never knew when the pain would get too bad. Endometriosis took away my choices.
I consulted doctors and tried many different treatments. Many of the doctors trivialized my symptoms. While there is no cure yet for endometriosis, I have finally been successfully treated, and I'm no longer living with pain.
I now lead the life I always wanted. I'm successful in my job and enjoy my friends and family. I hope any girls or women who read this and identify with my experience will seek help. Their pain is not normal, and they do not have to live with it. -- KAREN IN VIRGINIA
DEAR KAREN: I'm glad you wrote. I have known several women who suffered debilitating pain with their menstrual cycles -- and I'm pleased to reinforce the message that it's NOT "part of being a woman."
Endometriosis is a serious disease that affects more than 5.5 million girls and women in the United States and Canada, yet many are unaware that they have it.
My experts tell me the most common symptom of endometriosis is pelvic pain that may have a monthly pattern and may interfere with the ability to perform daily activities. Other common symptoms are: fatigue or exhaustion; pain during or after sex; lower backache during menstruation; painful bowel movements, diarrhea or other stomach upset during menstruation; stomach bloating and swelling; and heavy or irregular periods.
If women experience symptoms such as the ones I have described, they should seek help. Pain is NOT normal. It is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong.
One of the most distressing things about endometriosis is that it often takes women years to get an accurate diagnosis. Studies show it can take more than 4 1/2 years for girls and women with endometriosis to report their symptoms to a doctor!
The Endometriosis Association has been helping women and girls for more than 20 years. Because March is Endometriosis Awareness Month, the association is sponsoring a nationwide program of free screenings. Their new self-test, which uses five "yes" or "no" questions, can be found on the Internet at www.killercramps.org.
Volunteer doctors are also offering free endometriosis screenings. To locate a physician in your area, call 1-800-992-3636.